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  • Writer's pictureTribe Pilot

Swimming Through the Forest

Salmon and forests form a closer embrace than many of us realize.

When I was but a newbie in the Pacific Northwest, I stumbled across the Wildwood recreation site, a gem on the flanks of Mt Hood. That's where I learned that in times prior to the 1800’s, northwest forests along rivers became huge wetlands in winter months. As the forest flooded, the fish surged in, seeking the protection and calm of the forest floor. The water eventually retreated, the fish too, into what would now be a stream bed tangled with trees and root wads left by the torrent. I loved this, another act of goodness by the forest - its skeletons forming scaffolds and ponds to shelter thousands of juvenile salmon. Factoid - most ponds in streams are the result of downed trees ten inches or more in diameter. But the forest's embrace of the salmon doesn't stop here - it patches the holes in itself with fast-growing colonists - alders - whose leaves are a favorite of the insects that are loved by fish. If I were a fish, this is a place to be born into, and certainly a place worth returning, to spawn, and maybe die.

I loved this story, but I had not realized until recently the epic, titanic scale of the salmon-forest embrace, in both size and time. Let me start with this - salmon have existed for nearly 20 million years, and the huge salmon runs that populated the Pacific Rim – Japan, Russia, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest – were simply incomprehensible. The numbers are but a trickle now, and maybe like me you've got regrets that you'll never see the limitless rivers of fish in uncountable numbers, that actually changed the colors of the rivers and streams where they ran. In my local river, the Columbia, the fish each year came in the millions, and and from the 1800's, were harvested in the millions. Every year for over 100 years more than a million pounds of Columbia River salmon was packaged into cans, until in the 1990's, the salmon stopped coming.

So what does the loss of tens of millions of fish a year mean?

In the Pacific Northwest:

“…Salmon used to move 8 million tons per year of high-nitrogen fertilizer (their bodies) from the sea up coastal valleys and far into the interior. Bears, wolves, mink, and birds that ate them spread the nutrients around, dropping them in urine and feces. The resulting fertilization of plants has been confirmed in dozens of studies: the isotopic signature of marine-based nitrogen is in plants a mile from salmon streams, but not in similar leaves in watersheds that lack salmon. Since nitrogen is a main limiting factor on plant growth here [the Pacific Northwest], the decline of the salmon literally stunts tree growth in much of the region...” Excerpted from: Natural history of the Pacific Northwest mountains: plants, animals, fungi, geology, climate. Daniel Matthews. Timber Press Inc., 2017.

There's something to stop you in your tracks - to stunt forests, take away the salmon - is that why the forests take such good care of the fish, because the fish take care of them?

It’s not possible to tell a story of salmon without describing one more relationship. You may recall from my piece “Stone's Knots” that people on the Columbia, the Big River, Nch'i-wana to Sahaptin speakers, have a relationship with salmon going back millennia. The salmon form a sacred heart of their culture:

“From a tribal legend, we learn that when the Creator was preparing to bring forth people onto the earth, He called a grand council of all creation. From them, He asked for a gift for these new creatures—a gift to help the people survive, since they would be quite helpless and require much assistance from them all. The very first to come forward was Salmon, who offered his body to feed the people. The second to come forward was Water, who promised to be the home to the salmon. In turn, everyone else gathered at the council gave the coming humans a gift, but it is significant that the very first two were Salmon and Water. In accordance with their sacrifice, these two receive a place of honor at traditional feasts throughout the Columbia Basin. These ceremonies always begin with a blessing on and the drinking of water, followed by a prayer of thanksgiving on and the serving of wy-kan-ush, the salmon. This ceremony reinforces the central role that salmon and water play in the health of native people and their culture.” Follow this link for more.

To close, I'd like to return to where this story all began for me, on the flank of Mt Hood (Wy’East). I returned to Wildwood recently, wanting to be refreshed on the multiple ways forest and the salmon were linked. Is it a surprise that my next lesson would be a watery one?

Rising on Mt Hood is the Wild and Scenic Salmon River, the only river in the US thus designated along its entire length. The Salmon runs through the Wildwood site and is still home to chinook, coho and steelhead.

In the Salmon river watershed, biologists estimate that a third of all the water comes not from rain blown in from the Pacific, but is combed from the clouds by conifers. No surprise really, if you think that a single fir tree can hold over 1,000 gallons of water on the surface of its needles, water that then drop by drop feeds roots, a home stream for salmon, and a connection with the ocean. It’s a beautiful touch really, one more contribution by the trees to the lifecycle of salmon, and part of the magic that enables the ocean to give its gifts of salmon and water to the land and the people.

The salmon was put here by the Creator for our use as part of the cycle of life. It gave to us, and we, in turn, gave back to it through our ceremonies… Their returning meant our continuance was assured because the salmon gave up their lives for us. In turn, when we die and go back to the earth, we are providing that nourishment back to the soil, back to the riverbeds, and back into that cycle of life. —Carla HighEagle, Nez Perce

Resources (all resources accessed August 2020):

The other side of the Pacific, Japan, Russia, FYI,

About salmon, including a quirky list of salmon facts:

Salmon wheel, and a history of canning salmon on the Columbia:

My favorite line from this post “Moreover, the sockeyes would keep ranchers up all night with their loud splishy-splashy swimming as they traveled up the Salmon River.” Also provides an interesting insight into why we built the dams…

The place where during one of my first trips to the Pac NW I was introduced to the relationship between forests and salmon:

Patagonia film, Artifishal. Fish hatcheries - help or harm? Well worth watching.

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